The state body requested records connected to Commissioner Laura Cobb’s employment of a county inmate at a gas station she manages, according to documents provided by Cleburne County Probate Judge Ryan Robertson this week in response to a request from The Star. The Ethics Commission also has requested records of Commissioner Emmett Owen’s use of inmate labor.
Cobb, who took office in January, interviewed the inmate, who was later hired to work full-time in the gas station on Alabama 46, she said. The inmate is paid $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage. Cobb said that inmate, Kevin Walker, was released from jail about two weeks ago and still works for the station doing cleaning and yard work.
According to the records provided by Robertson, the Ethics Commission requested the records of the gas station’s payments to Walker as well as the records of Owen's payments to inmates at his place of business in Georgia.
Cobb told a reporter she has not spoken to an investigator.
The Ethics Commission does not discuss its investigations, a legal research assistant said last week.
Owen has spoken to an investigator and last week he acknowledged taking prisoners to work with him at the Candler Building in Atlanta. Taking the inmates out of state is an infraction of the rules of the program, but according to John Hamm, director of member services for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, it’s not against state law.
Owen last week declined to talk with The Star about whether he had broken any other rules of the program.
Cobb was "confused" as to why her employer’s use of inmate labor is being questioned now, she told The Star.
“He (Walker) would not have been able to get out if he had not had a full-time job,” Cobb said.
Walker told The Star Wednesday that he was grateful to be a part of the program. He said he started out doing community service through the program and later got the paying job at the station.
It gave him a chance to pay his fines and support his two children while he was in jail, Walker said. It also gave him a chance to meet people in the community, said Walker, who is from Georgia.
“I have community support to where I didn’t have any,” Walker said.
The gas station, owned by Won G. Cho, has been using inmates through the program for two or three years, Cobb said. The station was having a difficult time finding reliable employees and the coordinator of the work release program suggested using inmates, she said.
It’s worked out very well for the station, and it gives the inmates the opportunity to pay their fines, Cobb said.
Cho’s daughter, Maria, confirmed Cobb's comments. She said the inmates have been hard workers and that they have helped her father, who is getting older, she said.
“They’re really generous to my daddy,” Cho said. “They help him.”
Lane Kilgore, jail administrator, said he could not find an employer contract for the gas station in part because he doesn’t know whose name to look under. The corrections officer who manages the program has been out sick and was unable to help search. But, Kilgore said, Walker is the second inmate who has worked at the station.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.